USA TODAY US Edition
A different reception for today’s war vets
wounded are telling their stories and in the welcoming ways they are being received, a penance for Vietnam is being paid.
These wounded messengers are helping form impressions of a still-emerging postwar era in a far different setting than the one that greeted their Vietnam-era parents and grandparents.
Whether injured in body or mind, the veterans are being coaxed by doctors, psychiatrists and counselors to relate their experiences as part of their recovery. Physical therapists, after decades of laws aimed at bringing the disabled into the mainstream, urge them not to hide shattered limbs or burned skin.
If servicemembers from previous wars, especially World War II, spoke about their experiences at all, it was often before familiar audiences at VFW clubs or American Legion halls, says Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Gallagher, who counsels wounded veterans.
Gallagher himself suffered gunshot wounds in his hand in Somalia in 1993 and shrapnel in his leg a decade later in Iraq. He endured multiple traumatic brain injuries over his 30 years of service. He says not all wounded vets, including himself, are comfortable telling their stories in public. Those that are, he says, are “a constant . . . reminder that there are veterans in our communities.”
Among those wounded veterans is Lt. Col. Tammy Duckworth, an Army National Guard helicopter pilot who lost both legs and injured her right arm when her aircraft was hit by a rocketpropelled grenade in 2004 in combat in Iraq. She lauds fellow wounded vets on the public speaking circuit and the audiences that welcome them. But Duckworth, who is running for Congress as a Democrat from Illinois, cautions that “for every one of these wonderful, motivational survivors, there are so many more of them who are struggling.” Reality resonates
Today’s wounded warriors have something previous generations did not: the empowerment of social media and a reality culture marinated in decades of self-help movements seeking to draw meaning and lessons in the trials of others.
“Our servicemembers really have stories that can relate to a big world out there,” says Army infantryman J.R. Martinez, a native of Shreveport, La., who was badly burned in Iraq. “We all go through wars — military, economic, relationships. The one thing that connects us all is adversity.”
After spending 34 months recovering at Army hospitals, Martinez hit the speaking circuit to raise money to help families of wounded troops pay for visits to military hospitals. Celebrity followed. He played a wounded veteran on the TV soap All My Children and last year won ABC’S Dancing With the Stars.
Martinez says his most memorable moment came when a young woman wrote him that a speech he had given kept her from committing suicide.
Jonathan Shay, one of the Veterans Affairs’ leading clinical psychiatrists on combat trauma, says healing troops can benefit by telling their stories to trusting listeners.
Anderson says living in the moment became his recovery philosophy. He gives 30-40 speeches a year. He acted in the movie The Wrestler, appeared on CBS’ CSI:NY and wrote a book, No Turning Back. He is national spokesman for the veterans’ aid group, USA Cares.
“Why settle for a normal life when you can have an extraordinary life?” he says.
Anderson says he has earned as much as $10,000 a speech, but he often speaks for free, as he did in Dallas, Pa., for a scholarship fund memorializing Army 1st Lt. Michael Cleary, a local soldier killed in Iraq in 2005 at age 24.
“I never felt I was going to die,” Anderson tells an audience of students and adults from surrounding communities. But four months into his recovery, he landed hard in his darkest moment: alone in the shower, looking down at a legless torso and thinking he was half a person. He says music rescued him, especially the song Survive by a band called Rise Against, made up of his boyhood friends.
Anderson admits being strangely drawn to the memory of the “awesome” sensation that the bomb sent through his body. He praises as “life givers” the dozens of physical and occupational therapy students he met with earlier in the day. Minus prosthetic legs, Anderson jumps off his wheelchair and quickly scoots to the edge of the stage, where he declares himself 3 feet tall. It is an invitation to see him wholly as he is.